Michigan’s first Thanksgiving

November 5, 2001

ANN ARBOR—The smells of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie drift from the kitchen. The TV emits the whistles and cheers from the Lions game. Outside the air is brisk, but indoors it is warm. This is how Thanksgiving is celebrated today. This, however, was not always the case.

Gov. Lewis Cass declared Michigan’s first official Thanksgiving in 1829, long after the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. In prior years there had been little cause for celebration in the Michigan territory, according to Donald L. Wilcox, curator of books at the University of Michigan Clements Library. A devastating fire swept through Detroit in 1805, and the city again faced destruction during the Battle of the Raisin River during the War of 1812. Food was scarce, morale was low.

In 1813 Cass was appointed Governor of Michigan and things began to turn around for the territory. Primitive roads were improved and the Erie Canal was opened. Immigration increased the population from 5,000 to 30,000 in less than 20 years. Michigan moved from a first to second stage territory in 1826, allowing the people to elect a territorial council and a nonvoting delegate to Congress.

By 1829 Michigan finally had a lot to be thankful for. On Nov. 4, 1829, Cass issued a proclamation designating Nov. 26 “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” It called upon the citizens of the territory to set aside a day to acknowledge such blessings as their civil and religious freedoms, equal and stable government, the diffusion of knowledge, advantages of education, and general prosperity. The proclamation was printed in the Detroit Gazette, as well as a commemorative broadside edition, printed on satin.

Michigan has changed greatly since that first Thanksgiving, but the ideals the day was set aside to celebrate remain fixtures in American society.

The original broadsides are still in existence, one residing in the Clements Library at the U-M, and the other in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library. For more information, contact Wilcox, at the Clements Library, (734) 764-2347, or [email protected]


Lewis CassBurton Historical Collection